Monday, 3 September 2012

Mr. Smith goes to Washington – A 79 year old classic

If there is a better movie about human ideals, I’m yet to see it.
The 1930’s were a tumultuous time for the world, more so for America. The great depression had forced millions into poverty. The democracy of America was falling apart and communism and Fascism were on the rise. Just before the official breakout of World War 2 in 1939, Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” released in theatres. The movie was a instant hit and provided people with a sense of hope in regard to the past, present and future of the United States and the ideologies for which it stood.
Frank Capra and James Stewart combined to take on the Washington elite with this dramatic comedy about a naïve Washington outsider who gets appointed to the senate and stands alone against corruption and graft.
A classic David v/s Goliath tale, the story is the struggle between good and evil. In typical Capra (And maybe, 1930’s) style, the protagonist and antagonists are exaggerated so that there is no confusion as who is who. A timid and idealistic Mr. Smith takes on the mighty senators. This was probably one of the earliest movies to suggest the government as corrupt.
In this “once in a lifetime” role, he plays the perfectly homespun, intelligent, boyishly good-looking, nervous, senate elect who is thrown into the mix of power and corruption. Stewart is brilliant as the idealistic and awestruck kid from the backwoods who is overwhelmed by the glory of Washington, with its monuments and history. He also brings along a whole treasure chest of bumbling comedic sight gags that make him all the more lovable in the part. The look of absolute awe on his face upon first witnessing the Capitol Dome appears truly genuine, despite the fact that he was merely acting against a projection. As the story gets more complicated, and his character is developed further, Stewart is even better.There has only ever been one human being alive who could play Jefferson Smith, and that is of course James Stewart.
Not to go unrecognized are Jean Arthur and Claude Rains performances, in which they were also nominated for an Academy Award. Both of these actors were incredible and so well suited for their roles. Rains’ performance in the final scene of this film was memorable, as the pressure of Mr. Smith’s honesty and integrity start to wear on his conscience.
The real achievement of the film, though, is to portray a political system that immediately echoes the ones we’re familiar with. Through the antagonist characters: the corrupted Senator Payne (Claude Rains) and Edward Arnold as Jim Taylor, the ruthless tycoon who owns the media and controls the power, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” allows us to revisit the intricacies that still exist today within the political system and how some of the branches involved can lead to spheres that have nothing do with values and ideals. The all-time complicity between the media and politics is highlighted with such boldness that makes us wish we’d had more Jefferson Smiths today. But we don’t, because to be elected, one must pledge allegiance to these driving forces. In the name of progress, of economy, the big guys take the biggest share of the pie and leave the crumbs for people.
Capra’s direction is flawless, capturing the feel of tradition in Washington and producing the best acting from his lead. He had an uncanny ability to tug at our base human emotions and elicit direct responses.Nominated for an Academy Award, Capra lost out to Victor Fleming and Gone with the Wind.7 years later, he would go on to direct James Stewart in another wonderful movie, It’s a wonderful life.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a lovely movie. Age will always remove the realistic qualities of such films, but this remains a worthwhile film to watch, both for the entertainment value, as well as the political aspects of it. Although made over 70 years ago the story is still relevant and maybe even more so today, than it was then.

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